By Renée Jean, Tourism and Business Reporter
Little did Jenni Tabler know what she was starting when she wished a “Happy Enormous Skeleton Season” to one and all on her Twitter feed.
The Wyoming University sociologist told Cowboy State Daily she wasn’t expecting her thread commenting on the “unknown hero” from Home Depot who came up with the enormous 12-foot skeletons to take off like it did.
But it quickly gathered more than 10,000 retweets and quotes as well as more than 82,000 likes, and even landed her as a skeleton “expert” in a CNN article about the giant skeleton phenomenon.
“Somehow I tapped into it,” she said about the exploding popularity of giant skeletons across Wyoming and the United States. “Even though I’m definitely not an expert. I don’t own one. I was just like (thinking) these are so funny to me, and then people just kept commenting and sharing.”
While the Home Depot officially lists it simply as “12-Ft. Giant-Sized Skeleton,” workers there quickly gave it another nickname – Skelly.
While Tabler has no plans to own a Skelly – and says she hasn’t yet seen one in her part of Wyoming – she does see the allure. That’s what sociologists do – study human behavior to figure out why people do what they do.
“They’re just kind of funny because of their smiles, right,” Tabler said of the grin on the skulls of the giant skeletons. “Like when humans have skin, right, you have to actually smile, but skeletons inherently have a smile. So I wonder if it’s just that they’re not that threatening.”
Keeping It Fun
A family in Laramie that has dozens of regular-sized skeletons in their yard agreed that the non-scare factor is one reason they’ve gone for skeletons as Halloween lawn ornaments in general.
“We try to keep it real fun and, you know, spooky but not scary,” Jimmy Mora told Cowboy State Daily. “You can really do a lot of fun things with skeletons to make them either look scary or have a fun personality.”
Mora leans toward fun, rather than scare, with his skeleton arrangements, like the skeleton artist in his yard that’s painting the “Bone-a-Lisa” and another busy washing windows.
He and his wife Jessica also like to dress up for Halloween to hand out homemade cookies and treats to families and friends. There’s usually a Halloween-themed dinner as well featuring dishes like “murder-man” meatloaf and mummy hotdogs.
Mora does not yet own a 12-foot skelly, however, though not for lack of trying.
“We want one just because they’re really cool,” he said. “They really make a huge impact on the Halloween display.”
But so far over the past two years, the giants have always sold out every time he’s tried to order one.
Annie O’Donnell of Cheyenne, meanwhile, has managed to get not just one of the giant skeletons, but two. The second has a pumpkin head instead of a skull.
She has named her giants Stuart and Sheldon, after characters from “The Big Bang Theory,” the family’s favorite television show.
While many have mentioned the goofy grin or the sheer size of the 12-foot model as reasons why they want one of the 95-pound Halloween dolls, O’Donnell has an entirely different reason.
“I like them because they’re obnoxious,” she said. “And I can leave them up. I plan on leaving them up year-round, depending on the wind. The wind likes to have other ideas for my plans.”
O’Donnell does admit, however, to having a couple of large Christmas tree bags at the ready just in case her husband vetoes the year-round idea.
‘I Gotta Go Get This Now’
Getting Stuart and Sheldon took some effort. In fact, it took something of a village.
“I’d been looking for one for like months,” O’Donnell said. Her friends and coworkers also kept an eye out for her.
She got the fateful text that one had been spotted at Home Depot while hanging out with a cousin and her new baby. There was just one there, the text advised.
O’Donnell knew what she had to do.
“Hey, I will be right back,” she recalls telling her cousin. “I gotta go get this now!’”
At the store, O’Donnell guarded the giant box with the skeleton in it until her husband arrived to help her load it in the back of her car.
Sheldon, meanwhile, was a little easier to acquire. O’Donnell knew that Halloween stuff was going live July 15.
“So, I ordered him in July and I got him the first week of August,” she said.
Having scored a second giant skeleton, she was tempted to put him up right away. But she managed to hold off a little while – until the last week of August.
“Christmas is already in the stores,” she pointed out. “Some of them had Christmas up before they had Halloween stuff up!”
Picking A Bone
The increasingly earlier and earlier trend of commercialized Christmas seasons is what ultimately led to Tamara Atkins of Gillette to get her giant skeletons.
“We decided we love Halloween, so we’re going to keep our skeletons up as lawn ornaments throughout the whole, entire year,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “So, it was kind of a tongue-in-cheek thing at first, but then COVID hit and we did not realize it was going to be, you know, quite a phenomenon. We thought it would be a fun thing to do for a year.”
Turns out people liked the constantly changing skeleton setups so much the one-year joke took on a life of its own. People altered their driving routes to see what the skeletons were up to lately while on their way to work or the grocery store. When the skeletons hadn’t been moved around in a while, neighbors and friends would ask if the family was OK.
“So many people were like, ‘Oh we just love the skeletons,’” Atkins said. “We love the fact that you deck them out all the time with seasons. We just love it because we just, you know, we can’t get out, and we’re just so excited to see what you guys put out there.”
Leading The Skeleton Army
With the family’s skeleton army already so popular, Atkins knew they had to have one of the giants when they appeared in 2020.
“We just got lucky,” Atkins said. “I told my husband that I’d seen these all over Facebook and that we needed to go to Home Depot. I just wanted to see one in person, to see what it looks like.”
But Home Depot in Gillette didn’t have any at the time.
A few days later, while her husband was at Home Depot looking for something else, he noticed a giant skeleton being pulled out to place on the floor. He told the store worker not to bother.
“You’re gonna take that to the register because I’m gonna buy it,” Atkins recalls her husband telling her. “So that’s how we got our first one.”
Meanwhile, family and friends had started a fund to buy the family one, so Atkins feels theirs arrived in the nick of time.
“It was beyond sweet that they would want to do that for us,” she said. “But we didn’t want anyone buying something for us that we already bought ourselves.”
As The Skeletons Turn
Atkins and O’Donnell say they particularly enjoy delighting their friends, neighbors and community by arranging their armies of skeletons into funny scenes. These sometimes go along with the holiday season, other times they are just about something funny or what’s happening in town.
You never know when driving by the Atkins house if you’ll find the skeletons scaling the fence to make a jailbreak or sitting around a table sipping tea.
It has become something of a whole-family pastime to think of new displays for the skeleton families that are outside year-round.
“We’ve done back-to-school stuff, we’ve done stuff for the Fourth of July,” Atkins said. “We’ve had camp scenes where they’re being blown by the Wyoming wind.”
Wind is one of the biggest concerns with keeping the giant skeletons around. It takes more than the stakes that come with it to keep it in place.
O’Donnell has placed her two big skeletons toward the back, just kind of watching everything, to help keep them out of the full force of wind. She’s also bought trampoline stakes to tie him down, and keep him solid.
“He wobbles a little, but he’s not going anywhere,” she said.
Her scenes are generally light and fun for kids.
“I have one (skeleton) that has a bunch of little kids who are playing Twister and different yard games, and then I have four that are carrying a coffin,” she said.
There’s also a skeleton hanging off the roof, and another climbing the side of the house, to escape the puppy dog that’s chasing him.
“We’re gonna have like a mini-graveyard scene on one corner,” O’Donell said. “I have a lot of skeletons.”
Skelly, the great unifier
Tabler, for her part, said Skelly is a trend she’s happy to see in Wyoming.
“I like that it’s in Wyoming,” she said. “I feel like Wyoming deserved some fun things.”
In the larger scheme of things as a sociologist, Tabler said she believes Skelly does serve an important human need.
“(The larger meaning) is just like having those opportunities for joy, and those things that are not particularly controversial that we can just all like,” she said. “It’s kind of why I think animal memes are so viral or videos or whatever. It’s something that we can get some sort of collective joy out of and find some common ground around something as silly as a 12-foot skeleton.”
Skelly also is a great distraction for “maybe some of those like more heavy topics that go viral, right, that we’re thinking about,” she said. “If it’s COVID, or the war in Ukraine or something, Skelly is this nice little mental break from thinking about other challenges in our day-to-day lives.”